Here in Seattle, we have a beleaguered men’s basketball coach whose Huskies have had a bottom-two finish in their conference in each of the past two years. We have a once-respectable program that hasn’t been able to find consistency from its man at the helm — whether it’s been Lorenzo Romar or Mike Hopkins.
It’s a struggle for the program. It’s a struggle for the fans. It’s a struggle for a city with a proud history of hoops.
And there’s the guy on the other side of the state. No struggles there at all.
If you’re looking for a model of both growth and consistency, it’s Gonzaga men’s hoops coach Mark Few. If you’re looking for someone who can slay Goliaths as David and Davids as Goliath, it’s the main man from Spokane.
Since taking over as coach in 1999, Few has transformed the Zags from mid-major Cinderella to national powerhouse — and now has the chance to do something that hasn’t been done in 45 years: finish a college basketball season undefeated.
If there has been one knock against Gonzaga — and it’s pretty hard to find any at this point — it’s that it has never been able to win a national title. It has been a No. 1 seed four times (including this season), a No. 2 seed three times and the No. 1 ranked team in college hoops on multiple occasions. But in terms of cutting down nets on a Monday night in April, it just hasn’t happened.
This, some would argue, is what keeps the Zags (26-0) from being put in the same tier as other elite programs such as Duke, North Carolina, Kansas or Kentucky in terms of accomplishments since the turn of the century. Their regular-season achievements — particularly over the past few years — are on par, but they just haven’t boogied as well in the Dance.
Not that they’ve completely faltered in the tournament. They’ve done anything but. In their past five appearances the Zags have reached the Sweet 16 four times, the Elite Eight twice and the championship game once. The ultimate prize has eluded the Zags, though. But maybe it’s for good reason. Maybe the most fitting culmination for Few’s development of this program is in the form of an undefeated season.
Few didn’t invent Gonzaga hoops as we know it, but he did take the baton about five meters after the gun. The Zags first got on the national radar when they reached the Elite Eight as a 10 seed in 1999 under Dan Monson, but they have been Few’s baby ever since.
For his first two years, it was more of the same — going to the Sweet 16 as a 10 seed and then as a 12 seed. A few years later, it was them blossoming into a national power, with Gonzaga earning a two seed in ’04 and a three seed in ’05 and ’06.
Major tournament success didn’t ensue, but consistency did. In fact, this year marks the 21st season in a row the Zags made the NCAA tournament. The Zags have also had five first-round NBA draft picks since 2012 (four in the lottery), and are expected to get a commitment from Chet Holmgren, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country for 2021.
A few years ago, I remember asking Cameron Dollar, the Seattle U men’s hoops coach at the time, what he hoped the Redhawks’ program could look like one day. The first answer out of his mouth was Gonzaga, but he instantly took that back, realizing that was likely a pipe dream. As much as the Zags may seem like the blueprint for other mid-majors, nobody has been able to imitate Few’s success.
So what is the key to all this success? ESPN’s Max Kellerman asked Few that Wednesday.
“I’d say the biggest thing is just continuity. I’ve had the same athletic director (Mike Roth) the entire time I’ve been at Gonzaga. He’s been a partner with me through this time,” Few said. “My staff has changed over a little bit but stayed relatively the same. And then just an overall cooperative effort of growth — never being happy with where we’re at, and the school and everybody’s been involved with that, all the way up to the trustees, and heck, the community.”
Few is not one to give himself credit, but he deserves it. Gonzaga’s growth from where it started to where it is now has been historic.
So if the Zags — favored by Vegas to win it all — do finally grab that first national title, they might as well do it in historic fashion.